Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad will star on Broadway this fall in a modern take on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a revival that will add an intriguing element of racial contrast to the classic tale of two star-crossed lovers.
“The last thing we wanted to do was to do a sort of pompous, classic version of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” said director David Leveaux, a five-time Tony Award nominee. “I’m just taking away all the wallpaper and mantelpieces, all the kind of pompous stuff we associate with grand Shakespeare productions, and try to go as simple as possible.”
Producers said Monday that previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre will begin Aug. 24 with an opening night set for Sept. 19. Tickets will go on sale to the general public on April 8.
The production will also star two-time Tony Award nominee Jayne Houdyshell as the Nurse and Tony nominee Joe Morton as Lord Capulet. The Capulets will be played by black actors and the Montagues by white actors.
Leveaux stressed that the idea of exploring the racial difference between the two feuding Italian families came organically after the casting of the lead actor and actress.
“I did not set out to create some conceptual frame,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you’re sitting in Row E in a Broadway theater, you either believe that these two people are in love and are invested in them or the play doesn’t work.”
Leveaux said Bloom came aboard first several years ago, thirsty to try his hand at the work despite the director saying there were easier ways to make his Broadway debut. Years ago, Bloom had wanted to join the Royal Shakespeare Company but was persuaded to film “The Lord of the Rings” instead.
“I was just so fascinated by his passion and his absolute boyish love of this language that I thought, ‘Yep, that feels like our Romeo,” Leveaux said.
Leveaux, whose Broadway credits include the musical “Nine” with Antonio Banderas and “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring Kevin Kline, found his Juliet after seeing “Stick Fly” on Broadway and immediately spotting the “luminous” Rashad, who was playing a maid with a secret.
They began to work together and the director was smitten: “That combination of wit and heart, which is what you need in a Juliet, seemed sort of irresistible to me.”
Leveaux put the pair together for the first time in Los Angeles a few months ago to see if they could produce sparks and proposed they start performing the Act 2 balcony scene.
“The first line out of Condola’s mouth made Orlando laugh,” he said. “I looked at him and it was like watching a man shed every ounce of armor he had as a celebrity and just adore this girl. I thought, ‘There you go.’”
Leveaux then decided not to be colorblind about the cast, concluding that Juliet’s parents must be black and Bloom must come from a white household. The casting teases out how very conservative the two families have become.
He said “Romeo and Juliet” is a fast and urgent play and both families are barely able to conceal a deep well of barbarism. That has Leveaux wanting to go as simple as possible and he is tempted to just cover the stage with sand and then set fire to it.
“That’s what this production should feel like — it should feel like fire on the sand,” said Leveaux, who once did a production of Sophocles’ “Electra” with Zoe Wanamaker and covered the stage with earth. “To make it modern, we’re going primal.”
Bloom, who also has appeared in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” film series, recently completed filming “Zulu” with Forest Whitaker. Rashad, the daughter of Phylicia Rashad and sportscaster Ahmad Rashad, earned a 2012 Tony nomination for “Stick Fly” and was in the recent remake of “Steel Magnolias.” She is also in the new Broadway revival of “The Trip to Bountiful” with Cicely Tyson.
It will be the first “Romeo and Juliet” on Broadway since Paul Ryan Rudd and Pamela Payton-Wright played the doomed lovers in a 1977 Circle in the Square production. Other famous names to play the parts on Broadway include Claire Bloom, John Neville, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
This new revival precedes another high-profile New York production of the play. A Classic Stage Company production will star Elizabeth Olsen next season.
Over the centuries, the story of the warring Capulets and Montagues has been set in creative ways, whether it’s to illustrate the divide between Palestinians and Israelis or competing American pizza parlors. The martial-arts flick “Romeo Must Die” updated the Montagues and Capulets into a gang rivalry between blacks and Asians in California.
Now a fresh version aims for Broadway.
“While I think it’s a terrifying idea to do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on Broadway, equally, why would you do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ anywhere but?” Leveaux asked. “That’s the place to get really mischievous and primal and urgent and direct.”